Surprised. This is how I felt to find an area on the island of Cuba that sincerely resonated with my soul. This place is Vinales, a small town in western Cuba. As my boyfriend, Stan, and I were first driven into this area, we experienced a visual unfolding process as majestic glimpses of what was to be our surroundings for the next four days gradually eased into the landscape.
Initially, large, stately, all natural, straw roofed barns were seen on occasion. Gradually, they were spotted more and more frequently in the midst of these wide-open fields of greenery. Honestly, we could not take our eyes off these barns and the structures around them. They were gorgeous. They melted into the landscape, as they were made of wood and straw that had weathered a good deal, and yet were in many instances striking. Many were adorned with metal siding, again much of which had faded from scorching sun exposure.
The structures were striking because they so often were painted some type of vibrant color: lime- green, blue, yellow, orange, red and so on. The metal siding came in variations of black, silver, amber, brown and grey. The variations of hue and texture on each structure dazzled.
My state of mind shifted in a wonderful way as we continued to go deeper into Vinales Valley. I felt calm, peaceful and vastly expansive. Breathing in, I smiled with contentment, shifted into a more comfortable position in the car’s seat, and anticipated with mounting enthusiasm our arrival into the actual town of Vinales. The gate way to the Sierra de los Organos mountains.
The essence of this area evokes simplicity!
It is fascinating an area can be described in this way when its inhabited by farmers and their families who don’t have an easy life. They work hard every day growing tobacco and coffee. But, it is the truth. Nature is still very much predominant in this area, it hasn’t been trampled or changed by a larger force to any great degree.
And nature has a way of slowing things down, forcing the clock to bend to her time calculations.
We were dropped off at a cross roads in town. Hungry, stiff and over-heated from being in a car for six and a half hours with no A/C; we plunked ourselves down at the nearest restaurant and took in the town life as it passed us by. A little while later, we walked in the direction of the valley’s tall, steep-sided limestone hills, known as mogotes.
Seeing these gorgeous hills rise up in front of us flooded me with awe, wonder, excitement and happiness. Indeed, I was almost giddy. Nothing could have bothered me. If my packs weren’t heavy, I would have started skipping.
The homestay ended up being in the opposite direction and uphill a bit. Our back-patio area gave us a wonderful panoramic perspective of the hills in all their grandeur, providing us with a view of the illustrious tobacco fields leading up to the hills.
From the advisement of another traveler we met, the next day we elected to hike into a nearby valley, the Valley of Silence (Valle de Silencio). We strode by vast fields of lush tobacco, their electric green leaves were long, plump and vibrant. As we meandered further, we found ourselves in the presence of a tobacco farmer who sat us all down, served us refreshing drinks of our choice and delighted us with an explanation of the process his family has employed for generations; transforming his tobacco leaves into the beautiful regal cigars he sells.
The tobacco farmer was sweet, endearing and so very humble. He took so much pride in what they do.
All the men were offered one of these hand-rolled, low nicotine, organic cigars to enjoy. I was one of three non-Cuban women present to have this experience. In settings as gorgeous and heavenly as this, and believing in the “when in Rome” philosophy of life, I could not pass up such a unique opportunity. I requested one too!
So, there we were, at a tobacco farm during the sunset hour, Cuban cigars in hand, watching the dusk lighting change minute by succulent minute and wouldn’t you know it, Salsa music started floating out of the radio on the bar counter. Having had several local rum concoctions, this enticed us to get up and start dancing. I mean heck, my boyfriend and I took salsa lessons before this trip for these very opportunities!
Trying not to laugh most of the time, we practiced our steps to the beat, encouraging others to dance with us. One of the local farm hands started dancing with me, and, during a rest period, indicated that he liked my cowboy hat. He suggested a trade – mine for his. I wasn’t too partial to my new cow boy hat, in fact, so was super amenable to this trade because his cowboy hat wasn’t like anything I’d seen in the stores around town and I was glad to make his day by doing the switch.
It’s not about the hat. It’s about the interaction that results in the hat. We exchanged so much more than just a material object. We touched one another, we shared a common bond, we turned a two-hour meeting into a life-long moment of Zen.
We couldn’t get enough of the Valley of Silence, and had thought the sunset hour was such an epic time of day to truly enjoy it. Therefore, we arranged to go into it again, this time on horseback. Our young Cuban guide, Richelli, met us the next afternoon and introduced us to our horses for this six hour adventure; aptly named Mojito and Cuba Libre.
The ride into the valley was relaxing. Our hopes at being able to guide the horses, maybe break into a canter at least, were quickly dashed as it became obvious the horses walked this path often enough, thus it was almost automatic. Richelli brought us to a tobacco farm run by two brothers that where friends of his family. They offered us lemonade or mojitos, we got one of each. Delicious and refreshing!
We sipped on them as one of the brothers jovially explained the cigar making process. He finished his talk by cutting the end of the cigar with special scissors and dipping it in honey. When you lit the cigar, you put the honey dipped side in your mouth as it makes the smoke sweet and lighter in taste. I loved the extra flavor this added to my 2nd official cigar smoking experience.
We were soon joined by a mother and her teenage daughter visiting from Switzerland, as well as a young Parisian woman who was intrepidly having this experience on her own. Pleasantries and laughter were shared by all for another hour, then Stan and I ambled out to the field to take in the panorama of the valley. The small hills with low laying vegetation that dotted the valley were gorgeous. Both of us could not help but be put in a joyful and happy mood by taking in this peaceful, tranquil vista.
Though we could have stayed in this spot another hour, we had been told there were still a couple other spectacular spots that our guide wanted to show us. Plus, we were eager to go deeper into this valley, so we jumped back on our horses and meandered to a small lake that we could swim in. I enthusiastically jumped into the refreshing little lake, coaxing our young Parisian into joining me. Refreshed, I then joined Stan, this time taking in the view on the other side of the hill. The light was starting to shift, and the view was actually even more breathtaking to absorb than at the tobacco farm.
Stan and I spent 20 minutes sitting on the ground, soaking up the valley and all if it’s astounding beauty. I have had the good fortune of traveling to many a land; we concurred this was by far one of the most exquisite 20 minutes of our lives.
Our last morning, we woke up at first light and went on solitary morning walks to take in the unique morning ambulation’s and noises of Viñales. I walked over to the nearby field that opened up and led to the limestone hills. I sat on the red dirt and took in how the light from the sun rising behind me was not quite directly hitting the hill with its rays yet, so a soft glow of orange and yellow seemed to radiate from the terrain around me.
What was quirky about this time of day and locale, was that while I was having an ‘eyes wide open’ meditative experience of sorts, there were dogs barking, roosters chasing squawking hens and horses neighing all over – a cacophony of noises!
But the noises didn’t bother me, it just made me smile big, and take in a deeper breath. It all worked for me. It was as if I’d been given a special key to enter an even more special space. This was no trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. I could relax and expand into this valley.
The timelessness of this place got to me. Healed me. Grateful, I walked back to our casa and packed up to head home. I was ready and forever thankful to have spent time in such a wondrous, serene and giving land.